Is broadband important for us?

When my wife showed this picture of a dress on her cellphone to her tailor (a greying middle-aged, semi-literate person with an unkempt appearance) asking him to have a good look at it as she wanted him to make something similar, he turned around and asked, “Baji, aap ke paas bluetooth hai”? (Sister, do you have Bluetooth?). Time and again, one sees that once opportunity is provided to our “supposedly illiterate” people, no matter how sophisticated the technology, before you know they’ve learned to make use of it! It is an absolute myth that people of a developing country like ours are not able to make use of modern technology.

Examples like the one above from the cellphone world are numerous but wherever broadband is becoming available, similar examples are coming to light too. When former colleague Tahira Malik visited a ‘ladies only computer center’ in Balochistan (to which USF had provided broadband) the purdah-observing ladies were thrilled to find out that not only could they learn new embroidery-stitches and new recipes from YouTube, they could also learn how to make themselves up, like those gorgeously made-up ladies on television! Soon they were googling on their own! A remarkable comment was: “Yeh google tau ek jinn hai”! (This google is a genie). Simultaneously at some other telecenters, one could find boys thrilled at discovering that not only was it possible to see their houses on Google Earth, it was also actually possible to earn from the web.

The affluent ones go some steps further – like using broadband to involve their near and dear ones abroad in family events through broadband (notice the 2 laptops in top right corner of the accompanying pic!).

I keep coming across detractors who, somewhat skeptically, ask what will we do with broadband? Can broadband create jobs? Can broadband educate? What would be it’s impact on the GDP?

Let’s take the most important issue for us, Education. ‘Khan Academy’ in US (, set up by Mr Salman Khan, whose family migrated from Bangladesh, has millions learning from it’s 3,000+ (and growing) educational videos – a shining example of how broadband can help educate masses. Today YouTube has over 100 million views of Khan Academy. MIT’s Opencourseware is another such website with 32 million views. The videos are being translated in many languages. Imagine the potential!

For those looking for higher levels, digitization is making more and more information available via broadband. E-newspapers, e-books, on-line scientific journals and digital libraries are changing the pattern of access to valuable content and modifying the way we read or do research

As Secretary Gen. ITU recently stated, two of the biggest universities in the world today specialize in distance learning – Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi (3.5 million students) and Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad (1.8 million students). On the other hand ICTs and broadband have brought the death of distance. Imagine the potential when Broadband and Open Universities team-up!

It must be kept in mind that broadband is not an end in itself. It is an important means of meeting a wide variety of goals in highly diverse sectors – commerce, finance, government, healthcare, banking, scientific research, environmental sustainability, timely warning of natural disasters, climate change, smart electric grids, etc. etc. For those of us who have seen it work in some other countries, it is something as obvious as daylight. But for many perhaps one needs to refer to those hundreds of research reports and case studies on the economic effects of providing broadband access that are available for all to see. For example:

  • In China, every 10% increase in broadband penetration is seen as contributing additional 2.5% to GDP growth.
  • McKinsey & Company, “Mobile Broadband for the Masses” (2009), estimate that “10% increase in broadband penetration delivers a boost to a country’s GDP that ranges from 0.1 to 1.4 percent”.
  • An analysis of the European Commission that estimates broadband is creating more than two million jobs in Europe by 2015 and an increase in GDP of at least EUR 636 billion.
  • In Thailand, where in 2010 only 3% of households had broadband, it has been forecast that it could add 2.4% per cent to the country’s GDP growth rate.
  • A 2009 study by Booz & Company, “Digital Highways: The Role of Governments in 21st Century Infrastructures”, found that “10% higher broadband penetration in a specific year is correlated with 1.5% greater labour productivity growth over the following five years”. The report also suggests that “countries in the top tier of broadband penetration have exhibited 2% higher GDP growth than countries in the bottom tier”.
  • According to a study by the World Bank, it provides 1.38 additional percentage points to GDP growth for every 10-percentage-point increase in broadband penetration.
  • As per ITU’s “Confronting the crisis: ICT stimulus plans for economic growth” (2009), following the global financial crisis a couple of years back, many countries included expansion of broadband networks as part of their economic stimulus plan (USA: $7 Billion).
  • A study in Brazil reports that broadband added up to 1.4% to the employment growth rate.
  • According to a study of Gartner Research, in 2012, around 190 million consumers will be making electronic payments worldwide, mainly in emerging markets.

But unless broadband reaches the majority of a country’s population, it cannot realize it’s true potential. This is also the reason why now-a-days majority of the countries worldwide have established definitions of ‘Universal Service’ that includes broadband internet. At least 30 countries have explicitly mandated access to broadband, including Brazil, China, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and Uganda. Their number is growing. While some countries have gone even further, like Finland was the first nation to declare broadband a legal right.

It should therefore be our endeavor too, to introduce broadband to our people in every nook and corner at a rapid pace – and by the way, 3G can help us get there real quick!